The Story Twitter Should Be Telling

“We’ve never met but a friend told me all about you. I’m a recruiter for Twitter and I think I have the perfect job for you,” the woman who lived two doors down said when I stopped her one morning to introduce myself.

“Thanks but I don’t need to work right now. And I don’t want to work,” I responded. The previous few years as the Storyteller at Gap had been wild and I was looking forward to a few months of rest and relaxation. A little bewildered, she replied, “Just check it out and keep your mind open. I think you’d be perfect.”

I applied for the position the following day.

Prior to applying, I had never really spent much time thinking about Twitter and its value proposition. I had a Twitter account but I rarely used the platform, mainly because I didn’t want to invest the time in figuring how I wanted to use it.

In preparation for my first interview, I asked friends and colleagues in the US and abroad about the platform. Their responses were always the same. After a few moments of awkward silence, they would start sharing random facts like a photo Ellen had tweeted, a celebrity’s emotional breakdown, the trials and tribulations of the 140 character limit, and the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring. After about five examples, they would stop talking and stare at me in silence. One gentleman didn’t bother to list any examples. “I don’t really know what it is, don’t use it and to be honest, as soon as you asked the question, I felt old.” he said. A moment later he added, “It’s really a platform for people younger than me.” This gentleman is 30, relatively hip, lives in San Francisco and uses Facebook and Instagram regularly.

When I asked a few employees at Twitter in early Summer 2014 the same question, I didn’t get the sense that they understood what the platform was for either — at least not in a succinct way. Instead, their focus was on developing new products and optimizing revenue streams. They said that new products and platform modifications would cause people to join and remain active, a kind of “if you build it, they will come.” In reality, this seems to be a “let’s build it and we’ll figure out what the heck this thing is in the process.” The CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo shared a similar sentiment in an earnings call in early 2014.

The lack of considerable user growth in 2014 was not because the platform is not great or uninteresting or even that it is too difficult to operate. Rather, the lack of user growth is because Twitter has not told a compelling story about the platform’s purpose and value proposition to its potential user base.

What is the story Twitter should be telling?

When I think of Twitter, I think of checking to see if the tremor I felt was an earthquake, wanting to know the location of a fire in my area, discussing the Oscars in real time with friends and celebrities, commenting on the commercials and half time show during the Super Bowl, and showing support for causes that I believe in. I also think of such wildly divergent things as inspiring quotes from spiritual gurus and quick ways to contact companies. These types of events also play out on Facebook but my first impulse — when it comes to news and information — is to fire up my Twitter timeline and start searching hashtags to see what people are saying. I begin to mine a vast digital repository of verified and unverified sources, of commentary and hard news, and of my friend’s thoughts and the thoughts of those actually experiencing the situation firsthand. By digging around in what is currently a junk-heap-cum-tsunami of information, I start piecing together a truth, a story, and the answer I went searching for. I begin to connect beyond my network of friends and feel part of the global information network.

Almost a year and a half into being a public company, it’s time for Twitter to tell the story of the global information network that they have constructed.

When Apple launches a product, they tell us how to use it and they create a reason why we should use it through a product release press conference and commercials. When Apple releases a new commercial about the same product many months after the initial launch period — showing the product being used in different ways than they first suggested — we see the product anew and we’re invited to engage with the product in a novel way. Apple is constantly reinventing what their products can do or can be for the user.

The story of Twitter has been shaped by its users on the platform and by the journalists who have reported on the usage. To ignite user growth and user participation, Twitter needs to move from being the creator of the platform to the leader (and shaper) of how the platform is used. To do so, Twitter needs to show how users have already leveraged the platform to access information and how users have organized on the platform behind political, social, and cultural causes like #arabspring, #blacklivesmatter, and #jesuischarlie.

Imagine the following commercials playing during the local nightly news:

Hyperlocal version:

Local news footage of an important event from about a week ago is full screen with a time stamp of 6pm. The footage continues, but the opacity of the image drops a little and tweets begin flying in from the left and right side of the image with the timestamps of when they were first posted to Twitter. (The commercial would resonate more with the audience if the timestamps were from 1 to 2pm so that the viewer could bridge the disconnect of when the information has been made available to them (the nightly news) and when it actually happened in real life (reported on the Twitter timeline).) As tweets from multiple users populate the screen, the hashtags and timestamps pulsate lightly. The image fades to black and the iconic blue bird comes up and a tweet is composed in a box which looks like it is from a Twitter timeline. “Why are you waiting to hear the news at 6 when it’s happening here all the time? Join the conversation #newshappensherefirst.” Crossfade and the word Twitter appears on the screen with their blue bird.

If making iterations for all the markets seems daunting, make the news footage a national event. However, the value of a hyperlocal version is that the viewer begins to understand that Twitter is both a global and local platform.

A few weeks later, the following commercial occupies the same time slot:

News footage of Palestine fills the screen. After a few moments, the footage cuts to a news reel from 2014 of tear gas and police barricades in the streets of Ferguson. The opacity of the image decreases and tweets like Shawn Carrié’s tweet appears overlaid on top of the footage of Ferguson. Tweets from major news sources and other individuals start to populate the screen as the footage switches to Vines and pictures posted to Twitter from the residents, activists and journalists in Ferguson. The screen fades to black and the iconic blue bird appears. A tweet is composed: “News you get to be a part of. You can make a difference. Join the conversation. #newshappensherefirst.” Cross Fade and the word Twitter and their blue bird appears on the screen.

Iterations of these commercials could include other types of information that “break” on Twitter like celebrity news, sporting events, etc. During major events where Twitter is already the “go to” platform, Twitter should capture the uninitiated’s attention by running a spot that gives them a trending hashtag (i.e. #SuperBowl2016) and a call to action like “Join the conversation. Everyone else is already there. We’re waiting for you. #SuperBowl2016”

Evolving Twitter’s Real Time Global Information Network

In 2013, right before Twitter’s IPO, Ev Williams, one of Twitter’s cofounders commented on the origins of the platform in an article for the magazine Inc.

“There are certain businesses that you know what they are when they’re born. You don’t necessarily know how big they are or what’s going to make them successful, but Google, for example, was always a search engine.
With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.”

I agree with Williams. Twitter is not first and foremost a social network. It is instead an information network. Where Williams and I disagree is in my belief that Twitter is replacing something. Twitter is replacing the way we gather news — in the broadest definition of the word “news”. In actuality, Twitter is forcing a series of once impenetrable institutions to evolve or die.

Twitter is a real time global information network full of headlines (tweets) coupled with links (fuller articles) and media organized by sections (hashtags).

Imagine this future possibility (a possibility 284 million active users are already partly experiencing): instead of reading a physical paper or going to the New York Times’ website, the New York Times tweets out a headline and a link to one of their articles. A Twitter user clicks on the link and reads the article. An algorithm that Twitter could develop — perhaps something like the technology Palantir has created — recognizes the interaction and searches the article for keywords. (Perhaps Twitter could start requesting users to tag their article with keywords when they submit links.) Those keywords are cross-referenced against trending hashtags and tweets inside and outside of the user’s network. A folder of tweets that the algorithm has identified as compatible is created and presented to the user as a button titled, “For More Perspective: Click Here.” The user clicks on the invitation and the corresponding tweets found by the algorithm are presented. The tweets are by other news agencies, people commenting on the situation from various parts of the world or better yet, by people who are on the ground, in the actual location/situation the article was written about. The “uninterviewed subject” is now presenting a point of view the New York Times reporter didn’t hear or didn’t capture in their article.

The person tweeting is not a journalist but someone who has a Twitter account and is sharing their life — sharing information — and participating in the global information network. Suddenly, in the course of a few tweets, the article has come to life in an entirely new way. What is more, the user, who when reading the newspaper was only passively receiving the information, has the opportunity to tweet back, ask questions, offer support, or as is the case in the dialogue between Palestinians and the residents of Ferguson in August of 2014, share tear gas survival techniques. The possibilities are endless and incredibly exciting.

Now a natural response to this might be, but what about the future of journalistic credibility? Two words: Brian Williams.

While there are still “upstanding journalists” working today, the majority of the 24 hour news cycle has been integrated into the Entertainment Industrial Complex. Twitter could be the reboot we are waiting for. The question is, does Twitter want to claim their position as the leader and shaper of the global information network it has created or surrender its dominance to someone else?

I’m actually not worried about the future of Twitter or rather, the possibility Twitter represents, because other companies are beginning to see how they can modify their platforms to create a global information network as well. They recognize the promise of Twitter and they are starting to fill the problem I’m articulating. Facebook has introduced hashtags so that its network of information can be easily categorized and trending topics can be explored further. In a recent update, the company Medium started suggesting that users should consider using their platform to post quicker updates alongside the long form content that users have been posting to the site since 2012. They also suggested that users start tagging their posts with keywords and that the company was shifting the way a user’s stream (timeline) of recently published articles looks and feels. In many ways, the February 24th update to Medium has brought a more Twitter-like experience for the user and I find myself launching my Twitter app a lot less frequently. The wildly fascinating part: Medium was cofounded by Evan Williams and Biz Stone — two of the cofounders of Twitter.

So what should Twitter do now? Twitter should share its story. Twitter should tell the world that it is the global information network and invite us to come and participate in it by showing us what its current users have already accomplished. We’ve seen sites that were once as ubiquitous as Twitter fall into obscurity: Myspace, AOL, etc. The same fate could befall Twitter.

Jason Hanasik is a freelance Creative Strategist and Artist based in San Francisco, CA. He developed the role of Storyteller at Gap in 2011, exhibited his artwork at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2013/2014, and will begin studying at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in the Fall of 2015.